Mastering the Mental Game: The "E" Word: Exercise

Not Just Physical: 5 Ways Exercise Masters the Mental Game


Good morning, Heifers. I come to you today with some serious research and science, which means I drank a lot of coffee and gave my kids the “STOP RIGHT THERE” hand for a few hours while I dug into all things Google.

Here’s the thing: I exercise for a lot of reasons. I run, cycle, lift weights and do all kinds of crazy strengthening moves with my trainer to keep myself fit. But it’s not just physical fitness that I’m after. Since I started running and then training for a triathlon and then working on core strength, I noticed some other side effects beyond weight loss and toning.

I started to feel better mentally.

I noticed myself feeling calmer and more in control.

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It seemed like exercise helped with things like cravings for donuts and a good night’s sleep and keeping track of all the stuff I have to do every day with a brood of kids and so many appointments, things to cross off the list, etc.

I started wondering if I was imagining all these perks. Maybe I just wanted to feel like exercise was a good thing so I’d keep doing it. Maybe I wanted to think runner’s high was real so I’d be all cool about it: yeah…I totally feel better after a run.

Five years later, though, I still feel better mentally when I exercise regularly. So, I decided to look at the research and find out exactly why exercise makes us stronger and fitter not just in the glutes and abs but above the neck, too.

Here’s what I found….5 Ways Exercise Masters Mental Health:


Sharpens Memory

You know those foggy, mid-life moments when you can’t remember where you put your keys or you’re searching for your glasses only to have it pointed out (by your teenager) that they’re on top of your head?

Yeah, we’ve all been there.

Heifers, exercise can help.

According to Heidi Godman, Executive Editor over at Harvard Health Letter, “Exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills.”

Researchers at University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise actually makes the part of the brain responsible for verbal memory and learning bigger.  Bigger!

Heifers, we can literally grow our brains, and exercise helps us do that.

You’ve got to get enough exercise to increase your heart rate, and sadly researchers say strength training and balance exercises don’t provide the same results. But…just a simple walk was enough to change gray matter in adults in a study conducted by Arthur Kramer at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. This is great news for those of us who might need a break from running or other strenuous sports for one reason or another. It’s not all or nothing here. We can protect our bodies and brains with a brisk walk, which is so do-able for many of us.

And don’t think it has to be some kind of long death-march kind of walk either. Researchers at UC-Irvine found that as little as six minutes at 70% of max capacity yielded impressive results in terms of memory enhancement.

I don’t now about you all, but the thought of being able to find my keys without a twenty-minute search is pretty compelling.  

Fights Addiction


As we all know, food addiction is a strong, compelling force that many of us who’ve struggled with our weight deal with. I’d argue that many people who don’t struggle with substantial weight issues deal with it, too, but that’s a whole other enchilada.  The point is….addiction is real, legit and impacts many of us in one way or another.

The good news? Exercise helps. Seriously.

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Exercise can help addiction recovery by providing  a ‘high associated with exercise’ and serving as an alternative form of positive experience from eating, drinking or doing other drugs. Basically, our brains want to feel good. Our brains love dopamine, the reward chemical released when something feels good – eating a donut, sipping a gin & tonic or having sex. Exercise is a healthy, positive way to release dopamine. In fact, ‘runner’s high’ is a real thing. According to Psychology Today, “Runner’s high is a…deeply euphoric state.” Whether you feel intense euphoria from exercise or a lower-level peacefulness, exercise can light up the reward centers in our brains and give us the feelings of pleasure that might otherwise be provided by less-than-ideal vices.


Eases Anxiety


What if exercise could help ease anxiety?

That’s exactly what a growing body of research says is happening. From trail running to nature walks to yoga and everything in between, exercise (especially outdoors) “decreases worry, anxiety and other negative thoughts.” According to a 2009 study from researchers in Iran, “Participation in a two-month yoga class can lead to significant reduction in perceived levels of anxiety disorders.” In another study, yoga was found to be more effective than relaxation for improving mental health.

It gets even better. The New York Times reports that researchers at Stanford found that exercise not only creates new brain cells, but it keeps them in check, using them when they’re needed and shutting down these brain cells when they shouldn’t be firing.  This is exciting because it shows that exercise is not only calming and eases anxiety but it also excites other areas of the brain, so it’s like a two-for-one here. We get the benefit of creating new brain cells as well as strengthening the brain’s ability to control those cells and use them to ease/calm our brains.

It’s basically magic.

From reducing stress, dealing with depression and easing anxiety, exercise is nature’s mental medicine.  

Slows Aging

Forget Botox, lip injections and covering gray hair – exercise is where the money’s at when it comes to slowing aging.  

The New York Time sums it up in writing, “Almost any amount and type of physical activity may slow aging deep within our cells.”

Heifers, Botox doesn’t go deep within much of anything except your wallet.

This article in Newsweek reports, “…scientists have discovered how humans can slow down the aging process and shave almost a decade off their biological age.”

Yep.  Exercise.  It all has to do with the little protective caps on the end of our chromosomes that keep our cells stable. They’re called telomeres, and it turns out exercise keeps telomeres from shortening, fraying and eventually failing to protect our chromosomes. It’s all sciency, but the basic gist is that when we exercise, we keep our cells healthy and protect them from damage, which keeps our bodies healthy and protects them from aging.

This is a major win, Heifers.

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According to exercise science professor Larry Tucker over at BYU, “Just because you’re 40 doesn’t mean you’re biologically 40.”

I can get on board with that! Everyone knows I’m 29 anyway.  

Boosts Creativity

Every single one of us is creative. I know it’s easy to think that if we’re not writing a novel or scrapbooking our past vacation or sculpting a bust of our spouse, we’re not creative, but the reality is that we all use creative thinking throughout our entire day. We get creative with parenting (and I do mean creative). We freestyle dinner menus, plan businesses and design holiday décor. No matter what we’re doing, creative thinking helps us put just about any plan into action.

Exercise boosts creative thinking, Heifers. Even aside from boosting our moods and releasing all those positive endorphins, research shows exercise “enhances creativity independent of mood.” This is just another way exercise is a two-for-one deal. When we exercise, we feel happier and more creative.

Cognitive psychologist Professor Lorenzo Colzato at Leiden University in the Netherlands actually researched the connection between creative thinking and exercise. He found that volunteers who exercised in his study performed better on cognitive tests and “were able to think more creatively than those with a sedentary lifestyle.”


But…here’s a key point. You should exercise regularly to get the full benefit. When your body is used to moving, your brain can get busy pondering other stuff. When you hit the trails running for the first time, your body is overwhelmed with this new activity and focuses much more on the new sensation. So, keep moving on a regular basis and you do double-time, keeping your body fit so that your creative ideas can flow.

Pushes Productivity

According to research by the NIH, running can help ‘increase quantity of work and work ability.” Employees who participated in a running program performed better at work, produced higher quality work and took fewer sick days overall.

In another study of US school children, when the kids participated in after school athletic classes, the activity “enhanced cognitive performance and brain function.”

I love to be productive, Heifers. I like to hustle and get some stuff done, and exercise definitely helps me keep focused and push past the afternoon slump, when my mind tells me I want to slide onto the sofa with a remote control and bag of chips.

Whew. Those are a lot of hyperlinks and ‘according to.’ But the science backs up what I’ve been thinking, feeling and kind of hearing all around me for years.

Exercise helps us master our mental game as much (maybe more) than our physical one. I think we can all agree that our minds and bodies are connected. We don’t take care of one without taking care of the other. Now I know why and how that connection is so strong.

Knowing how much exercise strengthens my mental game only makes it more powerful when that alarm goes off and I find myself lacing up my running shoes one more time, for another pre-dawn run. I think about it when I get on the bike or crunch through another ab routine.

We only get one body and one life, Heifers. Let’s make the most of it.

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